I was feeling especially grumpy. In the words of Jean Shepherd, I was dejected, disgusted and despondent. Then I got an e-mail from a program director for a senior adult community. Was I still teaching and would I like to do a lecture for the group?
For a while I did not reply. I never thought I would ever teach again because teaching high school English had been so was emotionally shattering.
It had nothing to do with the kids, or the stuff I taught. I gave three years of my life to teaching tenth grade English for kids who aren’t good at reading and writing and, for too many reasons, may never be.
Before I stood in front of these kids, I had taught undergraduates and graduates.I had lectured to senior adults about history and biography. I taught karate. I helped kids at a community college find some reason to practice writing until the nonsensical matrices of English grammar began to make sense. I went to the best graduate school in the area to take education classes and I passed all the examinations necessary to get a teaching license.
I did this because my wife teaches high school. We met in high school. I was well aware that things happen in high school that can make the future happen a little bit faster. In high school I became an autodidact: a person who teaches himself. Later, as a journalist, I proved to myself repeatedly that I could learn just about anything, if I gave myself enough time, and that if I found the sense of wonder in what I learned and shared it with readers and students–then everyone benefited.
Or almost everyone. I was also aware that education creates paradoxes, and the biggest is that some students are not ready for what is being taught, or they don’t want it and they try to fight it as hard as they can. I knew this because I was not ready for much of what my teachers put before me, and I did fight some of it until I stopped fighting and just let it in.
What shattered me about high school teaching was my relationship with administrators. For all its many rewards, teaching is relentlessly demanding and difficult, and when your supervisors are trying as hard as they can to demean you and denigrate your efforts, leaving it all behind seems to be the best choice.
My wife said the school was just a bad fit for me, and that I would probably find another school whose administrators understood me better. It can take a while before any teacher finds a school where she feels he belongs.
In my long life I have never become good at failing. I typically blame myself when things don’t work out the way I’d like, even if much of what occurs isn’t my fault. I fall into dark moods. Worst of all, I reject things that I once valued, as if the act of having faith in those things betrayed me, or was somehow false.
When I left that school, my indomitable urge to learn, died. I could no longer focus on the books I used to read voraciously. Unresolved stress led to two heart attacks.
I lost my faith in myself as a person who loved finding out cool things about the world, who truly enjoyed sharing those things–not to show people how much he knew, but because, as the I Ching says, pleasure shared is pleasure doubled. There’s more than enough misery and misfortune clouding our skies. When you find something wonderful about life, or when somebody shows it to you, you reconnect with hope and joy. Like the kid who fights all that good stuff in front of him, you find the little bit of delight that moves you forward.
I lost faith in the sense of wonder. What was it, if not a momentary emotional response that so quickly dissolves into irony, paradox and bitterness?
This request that I teach again surprised me. The senior group was in New Jersey. I had been one of their favorite guest lecturers over the years. I specialized in historical and biographical subjects: kings, queens, Hollywood stars, disasters, triumphs, entertainers, artists, history’s hidden villains and unsung heroes, and some of other fascinating people whose lives helped create the world in which we currently live.
But I gave it up after moving to Virginia, because the last time I made the long drive north, the car broke down and, though I rented a replacement and delivered the lecture (on the life and accomplishments of Emily Post), the car trouble had left me addled. On top of this, I had tried to use some of the techniques I had been taught in grad school and none of them worked. The people liked what I did, but I felt I had let them down.
And now I was being asked to do it again. I thought about it. The fee was the same–but I had never, ever done these lectures for the money. For me, this was a chance to find out fascinating things about a person, place or thing, and share them.
I had been reading about the Roman statesman Cicero but thought that his writings on growing old were a bit shallow. I had also read recently about the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who selected Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius as his successors. Of the two, Aurelius was intriguing because he left behind the Meditations, a manuscript of aphorisms, bromides, Stoical thoughts, observations, dour thoughts on death and reflections on power and leadership that he never intended to have published. Somehow they were and they have inspired theologians, philosophers and world leaders to this day. Aurelius is occasionally sour and sometimes puzzling, but some of his writings have an uncanny way of speaking directly to his readers.
Then there’s the irony of an emperor who could have and do just about anything, who maintained an almost humorlessly austere and honorably responsible lifestyle. His son, Commodus, would go on to be the exact opposite of his father. One of the worst emperors ever, he would send the Roman Empire into its slow decline.
I hit the books and, because we had a different car, had an uneventful ride north. I recognized a few faces in the audience. I gave the talk, doing what I did for so many years.
And it worked beautifully. It felt good to be in front of people. I could tell from their faces, and their responses, that they enjoyed listening to me.
On the way back home, I had that confident glow when you know in the deepest part of your being that you’ve done the right thing.